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Wing Chun Academy of Thailand

ABOUT WING CHUN

TRACING WING CHUN'S ORIGIN

Wing Chun Wall Painting in
Lijiang

As Wing Chun practitioners, we all wonder where and how this amazing art originated. When Bruce Lee exploded into the martial arts scene and the silver screen, and the spectators learned that his pugilistic roots came from Wing Chun, the Hong Kong media sought out his master, my great grandmaster, Yip Man, and interviewed him, asking him the same question. GM Yip Man told the interviewers that Shaolin-Abbess Ng Mui formulated the art while in hiding, from the Manchurian force, in the Daliang Mountains of southwest China. The rest is history, as they say, and I needn't repeat the story.

However, of late, the story has been disputed.

Doubts emerged when some of GM Yip Man's students claimed that their master had never related the story to them, and that they had never heard it until GM Yip Man was interviewed.

Books and articles have since been written refuting Abbess Ng Mui's involvement in the art, the existence of Lady Wing Chun, and any womanÕs involvement in it. The authors put Wing Chun's birth (the art) at the time of the Boxers' Rebellion, on the Red Junk, fathered by the actors of the opera, who were also revolutionary fighters.

I have been related to Wing Chun since 1970. I have no doubt that the art sprung from the womb of a woman. I have no doubt that it came from Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun. Plus, I have no doubt about the veracity of GM Yip Man's story.

Of course, I don't have documented proof nor eye-witnesses to verify my belief; but neither do the authors who dispute GM Yip Man's story.

I have no doubts because, from my experience and understanding of Wing Chun, the art is more conformed to a woman's structure and mind than that of a man. For this very reason, men struggle to master the art or standout amongst other martial artists since GM Yip Man, who was a small-framed man.

For example, Wing Chun's horse (stance), Tan Sau, posture, and the concept of yielding, are all very strange and contradictory to male structure and thinking. Women have no obstacles between their legs to comfortably squeeze their knees inward, or execute a Tan Sau with their naturally inward-bent arms, have different and stronger lordosis (lower vertebrae) than male to allow better posture and pelvis control, and yield easily without loss of ego ... and come out winning.

(Click Harvard Science on Female Lower Back (PDF) to read about the difference between female and male lordosis.)

Below is a picture of my daughter's fully stretched arms; note how the radius (thumb) side of the arms are straight while the ulna (pinky finger) side of the arms are naturally bent inward at the elbows. Also note how the palms turn naturally outward, making the Tan more effective.

Daughter doing fully
extended Tans.

The other reason I stick to GM Yip Man story is simply out of respect for him and the founders of Wing Chun. To doubt GM Yip Man and refute his story of Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun is a slap to their faces. It's a perfect example of biting the hand that feeds you. ItÕs like being given a box of treasure ... taking it, and then denying credit to the givers.

The other theorists could argue that giving credit to Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun for the art would mean denying credit to the Red Junk actors, who developed it. I beg to differ. The story of Wing Chun, as told by GM Yip Man, INCLUDES the Red Junk actors as developers of Wing Chun; whereas, the new theorists EXCLUDE Abbes Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun.

Since there is no clear documentation of whether Ng Mui and Wing Chun first developed the art or the Red Junk actors, wouldnÕt it be better to credit them all?

Ancient histories were mostly passed down verbally; some of them may not have been wholly true, but the core of the stories wouldn't have been far from the truth.

GM Yip Man was not known to have been talkative or boisterous. We have to realize that the relationship between masters and students in the old days was quite different from what it is today. We may have a buddy-type relationship with with our masters today, and chit-chat over beer; whereas masters of the past demanded high respect and distance from their students. Masters talked to students only on a "need to know" basis. Students dared not ask questions, and only spoke when spoken to. So, it is not surprising that GM Yip Man did not relate the story of Wing Chun to any or some of his students. Also, as a rule, students and people of that era were not interested in the origin of the art (for that matter, the origin of anything) as we are today. Perhaps, the first time GM Yip Man was asked about the origin of Wing Chun was the time he was interviewed.

While some Wing Chun practitioners dispute the story of Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun, some of us are digging deeper into it. We're asking, where in Daliang Mountain did Abbess Ng Mui develop the art and meet Lady Wing Chun?

Daliang Mountain is situated on the borders of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in southwest China. The question then is ... was it in Sichuan or Yunnan?

GM Yip Man did not say whether it was in Sichuan or Yunnan that Abbess Ng Mui went into hiding. He may have known it or may not have. His teachers may have told him or may not have. Or perhaps it was just easier to say Daliang Mountain because most Chinese knew where it was, whereas, naming a little unknown town would have posed more questions and be more bothersome to answer.

The truth may never be found; but we could try using the process of elimination and probability to bring us closer to the truth.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to rewrite the history of Wing Chun as some people are doing. Neither am I saying that I have factual proof.

So, without further ado ... here's what I have concluded from my investigation:

Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun were in the Yunnan portion of Daliang Mountain.

Map of
Yunnan

Why Yunnan, and not Sichuan?

Yunnan would have been a better hideout for Abbess Ng Mui (escaping from Manchurian police and soldiers) and for Lady Wing Chun's father (escaping from Foshan [Futsan] police) for the following reasons:

Yunnan translates to "South of the Clouds." It was always, and is still, considered a faraway (thus named South of the Clouds) remote and inaccessible province of China by the Central Government. Until recently, the only means of travel on the narrow mountainous paths and torrent rivers were on mules, yaks, sheep-skin floats and hand-glides. It is inhabited by 25 major ethnic minorities, and 26 minor indigenous groups (China has 55 in total). (Read more at Yunnan Minorities.pdf.) It was always ruled by fierce ethnic warlords whom the Central Government was unable to ever conquer or enslave. Even in recent Chinese history, it stands out as the last province to convert to Communism. Because of its isolation from the rest of China, it was often used as a place of banishment for political exiles and fugitives.

The Yunnan map below shows the population of ethnic minorities and the bordering countries.

Yunnan Map,
showing aborigines population and neighboring countries

Yunnan is located in the southern end of western China. It shares borders with Tibet (when it was an independent country) Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam. Any fugitive, tracked down to Yunnan, could easily sneak cross one of these countries unnoticeably; whereas, the police or the army couldn't do so without proper authorization. (It was the passageway where Chiang Kaishek's Kuomingtan [Guomingdan] last soldiers used to escape from the Communist army.)

Although International and Chinese maps show only one name for Daliang Mountain, the regional folks call the Sichuan section of the mountain Daliangshan (Large Cool Mountain), and the Yunnan section, Xiaoliangshan (Small Cool Mountain).

Map of
Daliangshan

The above map shows DALIANG SHAN, marked in Sichuan.

Daliangshan occupies the south-eastern part of Sichuan, and extends to the north-western part of Yunnan, which the locals call Xiaoliangshan.

Map of
Daliang

The above map shows DALIANG SHAN in yellow highlight, and red lines for Yunnan's border. Funny how the mountain is shaped like a Tan Sau, pointing into Yunnan.

Here's a closer look at the Daliang Mountain.

Closeup look of
Daliang

In comparison, Sichuan is much easier to access from central and rest of China. It is predominantly inhabited by Han Chinese, and was historically well connected with the Central Government. It wouldn't have been a good place for Abbess Ng Mui, Wing Chun and her father to hide out. Also, the Daliang Moutain in Sichuan was inhabited by an indigenous tribe called Lolo (known as Yi today), who often fought the Hans and the Manchurians. Abbess Ng Mui would not have been welcomed in this region.

Now, here is a very interesting fact about Xiaoliangshan that makes me and some of my peers suspect that Abbess Ng Mui developed the art there, and that the story of Wing Chun occurred in this area.

In Xiaoliangshan, there is a village located by a lake called Lugu. It is inhabited by an indigenous tribe call the Moso. What is unique about the tribe is that it is a matriarchal society. In other words, women are the heads of the families and tribe. They don't have marriages, per se, but have what they call walking marriages. Men do not live with the women, and only come at night and leave before dawn; they have no rights to property or the children they father. (Read more about it at http://www. ethnic-china.com/Moso/mosomarriage.htm.)

Nowhere in the history of martial arts did any woman make a name for herself as Abbess Ng Mui and Wing Chun did. The art was always dominated by men. Shaolin Temple was ruled by male abbots. Abbess Ng Mui would have ranked lower than the abbots. Her prowess in martial arts would have been overlooked and unappreciated. So, it is highly feasible that Abbess Ng Mui was inspired by the women of Xiaoliangshan to develop a martial art specifically for women's structure and attitude. It is very likely that Lady Wing Chun was inspired by the women of this region to learn martial arts and challenge her harasser. It is also highly possible that a matriarchal society, like the Moso, had a martial art of its own that was different from men's, which they used to defend their families, community, and properties. It is highly probable that Abbess Ng Mui had learned, adopted, or borrowed their martial art to develop her own.

The Lugu Lake Village still exists today, and the Moso people still practice the matriarchal system and the walking marriage. However, since the ancient days, the Moso people have extended themselves to Suhe (pronounced Su-huh), and Lijiang, about 200 Km south of Lugu. Through migration and emergence, the Moso people have become Naxi people in Lijiang. They practice an indirect form of matriarchy. Although men are entitled to properties and children, women conduct business, labor, and manage funds. Men usually leisure in art and music.

Leisure Moso and Naxi
musicians

Having traveled to this region yearly for the past 16 years, I've seen how strong the women are physically and mentally. I'm convinced that the atmosphere and attitude in the region would have inspired any woman to go beyond the norm. Cantonese women, particularly in the past, were frail and submissive. Lady Wing Chun would have been so before coming to southwest China. However, being around matriarchs would certainly have given her the strength to stand up against men. If you recall the story ... when Lady Wing Chun returned to Canton, and married Leung Bok, she did not tell him of her martial arts ability. She acted like a submissive wife until she was called to reveal her skills. This story indicates that she played different roles in different regions. In northern Yunnan, it would not have been uncommon for a woman to challenge a man; whereas, in Canton, it would have been unheard of.

Below are a couple of movie clips of Lijiang women at work. One of them (pictured below) is shorter than my daughter who had just turned 10 in the picture. The women are carrying over 100 kg of stones and sand on their backs and neck. They were doing this all day.

My daughter standing beside a
woman laborer.

Double-click on the movie clips below to start or stop playing.

My interest in Yunnan did not begin as a search for Wing Chun's origin. I first went there to search my roots. My grandmother was a Kham Tibetan, living in Zhongdian, now known as Shangrila (an autonomous Tibetan region in Yunnan); and my father was born in Lijiang. However, after meeting and learning about the Moso and Naxi women, I began exploring the idea of the possibility of Ng Mui and Wing Chun being in this region, and giving birth to the art.

I thought, if the two ladies wanted total anonymity, they would have hidden in the mountain itself; however, they couldn't have survived just living in the woods; they had to interact with a township. As the story goes, Abbess Ng Mui often came down from the temple to the nearest town; that's where she met Lady Wing Chun. So, what town was it? Was it Lugu Village, Suhe or Lijiang. I concluded that Lugu Village was an unlikely venue. Even today, it is quaint and remote, and is predominantly inhabited by Moso villagers, who would have quickly spotted the two as Han Chinese, and aroused curiosity. Also, the story of Wing Chun didn't quite fit in this background.

The story relates that Wing Chun and her father sold bean curd in a market below the White Crane Temple. Obviously, they had to place themselves in a populated area to enable a decent business and living. Lugu Village was too thinly populated; so was Suhe. Lijiang would have been the most likely venue.

Lijiang has a history of over 800 years. It was always a bustling trading center in the region. It was part of the tea-caravan route that went to neighboring countries. (Go to http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_tea_route to read about the tea route.) It was also a place where Tibetans, Indians, Burmese and provincial Chinese came to trade.

Map of Yunnan
overlapping Terrain

The above map shows Lijiang at the end of Xiaoliangshang

Apart from hiding in the mountains, the alternative way to be anonymous is to blend into a crowd of travelers or multi-cultural population, where everyone is a stranger. Lijiang would have been an ideal place for Ng Mui, Lady Wing Chun and her father to go about unnoticed.

Now, why didn't GM Yip Man just tell the interviewer that Abbess Ng Mui hid in Lijiang if it was the venue of the story? As I said earlier, he may or may have not known; his teachers may or may not have not known; or it may have been too bothersome to pin-point where Lijiang was.

Lijiang was only known by traders in the region. In fact, little was known about it until 1996, when a major earthquake occurred, bringing international attention to it.

Yunnan being so remote, was ignored by the Central Government in its plan to modernize China. Very little funding went towards Yunnan, including the capital, Kunming. Anything beyond Kunming received almost none, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because of the poor funding, the ancient homes and streets were left untouched.

When the international community got involved in the rebuilding plan of Lijiang after the earthquake, it discovered the uniqueness of this beautiful ancient town. UNESCO immediately inducted Lijiang into its list of heritage town.

Even the Chinese did not know that such an ancient town existed. The young generation of urban Chinese had grown up on concrete high-rises, and had only seen ancient Chinese architecture in movies and museums. Since the discovery of Lijiang, it has become the prime destination for Chinese tourists.

So ... had GM Yip Man asked his teacher where in Daliang Mountain did Abbess Ng Mui live, and the teacher said Yunnan; he would have asked, "Where in Yunnan?" If the teacher answered, "Lijiang," Yip Man would have asked, "Where is Lijiang?" The teacher would have said, "Go bring me a map ..." That's as far as it would have gone because there were no maps readily available in those days like it is today. Only the Government or military would have such a thing. Even if he located a map, Lijiang would not have been on it.

GM Yip Man would have been in the same dilemma if he told the Hong Kong interviewer that Abbess Ng Mui was in Lijiang, Suhe, or Lugu Lake. That would have been as good as locating the Atlantis.

So ... the best answer from Lady Wing Chun to Leung Bok, and Leung Bok to ... whoever thereafter ... would have been Daliang Shan.

Although I may be wrong pinpointing Lijiang as the location of Wing Chun's origin, I am convinced that it is within this region. So much so am I convinced of Wing Chun's roots sprouting from here that I bought a property in Lijiang and built a Wing Chun school on it ... dedicating it to the honorable ladies who gave birth to Wing Chun.

I had first passed my thoughts to my sifu, Nelson Chan. In the fall of 2006, he visited me in Lijiang to investigate for himself. He went back pretty convinced himself. We've been discussing this matter ever since.

In March 2009, Sifu Nelson Chan returned to Lijiang, brining Sisook Lester Lau with him to explore the issue further. Sisook Lau is convinced as well.

Cantonese Chinese may feel offended that I'm moving the origin of Wing Chun from Eastern China to the Southwest. They may feel protective of their Southeastern art. In my opinion ... putting Abbess Mui and Lady Wing Chun in Yunnan at the time of the Art's birth does not take away from the fact (or story) that they both came from Eastern China; the Abbess from Shaolin (debatably in Henan or Fujian), and Wing Chun from Foshan; nor does it take away the fact that the art was developed further by Cantonese in Guangzhou (Canton). My investigation and theory only serves to add another dimension to the story or, if you will, history of Wing Chun.

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Copyright © Daniel Y. Xuan

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.

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